As Beef Cattle Become Behemoths, Who Are Animal Scientists Serving?

Callicrate note: Since the 1980’s the U.S cow herd has been reduced by 10 million head. How have we kept up with beef demand? Import more low quality cheap beef and make em’ bigger …

The hyper performance enhancing drug, Zilmax (Zipaterol), is supposed to be off the market, mainly due to animal welfare concerns, but the following article makes the point of what the industry will do to increase short term profits at the expense of quality, animal welfare, and essentially everything else.

Discussing the decline in eating quality due to IBP’s highly industrialized beef production model, President and CEO, Bob Peterson responded, Like chicken and pork, “We’re going to cook your beef for you.”

By  Melody Petersen

April 15, 2012

Miller Mobley for The Chronicle Review

Cameras rolled one day last fall as Ty E. Lawrence led journalists into a room-sized meat locker on the campus of West Texas A&M University, where bloody sides of beef, still covered with a slick layer of ivory-colored fat, hung from steel hooks. Dressed in a white lab coat, a hard hat on his head, Lawrence pointed to the carcass of a Holstein that had been fed a new drug called Zilmax. He noted its larger size compared with the nearby body of a steer never given the drug.

“This is thicker, and it’s plumper,” said Lawrence, an associate professor of animal science, pointing at the beast’s rib-eye. “This animal right here,” he said, waving his hand at the pharmaceutically enhanced meat, “doesn’t look like a Holstein anymore.”

A sales brochure touts Zilmax to children raising show cattle. The drug and others like it have been banned in the European Union and elsewhere because of concerns that they might endanger human health.

Convincing ranchers that Zilmax will transform their cattle into bovine Schwarzeneggers has been part of Lawrence’s work ever since the drug was introduced by Intervet, a subsidiary of Merck, the global pharmaceutical company. The tour he led of the carcasses in his lab was just one of many events where he has helped Intervet sell Zilmax. He’s given speeches to ranchers and written an article for a beef-industry magazine to promote the drug. He’s repeatedly let Intervet include his comments in news releases, including one in which he said the drug could “revolutionize the beef production system.”

Lawrence is hardly alone. Scores of animal scientists employed by public universities have helped pharmaceutical companies persuade farmers and ranchers to use antibiotics, hormones, and drugs like Zilmax to make their cattle grow bigger ever faster. With the use of these products, the average weight of a fattened steer sold to a packing plant is now roughly 1,300 pounds—up from 1,000 pounds in 1975.

It’s been a profitable venture for the drug companies, as well as for the professors and their universities. Agriculture schools increasingly depend on the industry for research grants, a sizable portion of which cover overhead and administrative costs. And many professors now add to their personal bank accounts by working for the companies as consultants and speakers. More than two-thirds of animal scientists reported in a 2005 survey that they had received money from industry in the previous five years.

Yet unlike a growing number of medical schools around the country, where administrators have recently tightened rules to better police their faculty’s ties to pharmaceutical companies, the schools of agriculture have largely rejected critics’ concerns about industry cash. Administrators have set few limits on how much corporate money agricultural professors can accept. Faculty work with industry is governed by confidentiality rules that veil it from public view.

In certain ways, the close relationship between animal scientists and pharmaceutical companies has never served the public well. Few animal scientists have been interested in looking at what harm the livestock drugs may be causing to the cattle, the environment, or the people eating the meat. They’ve left most of that work to scientists outside of agriculture, consumer groups, and others who take interest.

But with the introduction of Zilmax, the situation may have reached a tipping point. Critics say some academic animal scientists have become so closely tied to the drug companies that they may be working more in the companies’ interests than in those of farmers and ranchers—the very groups that land-grant universities were created to serve.

As the cattle trucked to the packing plants have grown into bulky, lumbering giants, the quality of the beef has plummeted. Meat from the most pharmaceutically enhanced cattle—especially those given Zilmax—can be so tough that some packing plants are refusing to buy cattle fed the drug. Some cattlemen and beef-industry executives have also begun to speak out. They warn that continued use of the drug may make ranchers’ herds difficult to sell, and end up hurting the image of American beef.

At a forum for cattlemen in Omaha in August, Glen Dolezal, an executive of Cargill, one of the country’s biggest owners of packing plants, said that while the company supports some use of drugs to increase weight gain in cattle, Zilmax had taken the process too far.

Cargill won’t buy cattle that it knows have been fed zilpaterol, he said, using the drug’s generic name. Cargill’s view is that an overly aggressive focus on growth “can have an impact on the consumer attributes of size, quality, and tenderness,” he said. “So we need to find a balance. The message there is that we ask you to be careful.”

No such warnings have come from academics—an omission that Allen Williams, a former associate professor of animal science at Mississippi State and Louisiana Tech Universities, says should be expected.

“At the universities, there are certain things you just can’t say, because many functions are sponsored by the major agricultural business corporations,” he says. “You don’t talk against them.”

At a cattle-industry convention in January 2007, thousands of people roamed the floor of the exhibit hall in Nashville, where pharmaceutical firms and other companies had erected elaborately designed booths to sell cattlemen the latest technology.

The speakers that day had plenty of advice on raising cattle, but two had news that few wanted to hear. Paul Heinrich, an executive of Sysco, the global food distributor, told the crowd that American beef was losing favor among consumers. Cattle were now so large, he said, that butchers struggled to cut carcasses into eight-ounce filets. “We’re not getting the beef we’re asking for,” he said. Ray Bozzacco, meat manager for the Meijer’s supermarket chain, in Grand Rapids, Mich., echoed Heinrich’s warning. Twice since the 1980s, he said, the larger carcasses had forced the chain’s supermarkets to increase the size of the tray that they packaged beef in. Today a T-bone wouldn’t fit in that tray. “Bigger isn’t always better,” he said.

For many in the audience, the warnings were no surprise. A beef-industry survey of restaurateurs and food executives in 2005 had registered complaints of heavy carcasses, inappropriately-sized rib-eyes, and tough steaks that lacked the marbled fat that gives them flavor. But at the time of the conference in Nashville, the use of growth-promoting drugs known as beta-adrenergic agonists was just getting started. Elanco, a subsidiary of Eli Lilly, had begun selling a drug called Optaflexx as a growth promoter in cattle in 2004. One feed company was mixing Elanco’s drug with whey, milk, and barley and selling it to ranchers under the name Explosion, evoking the effect it was said to have on the beasts.

The drugs come from a class of chemicals developed to treat asthma in humans. Scientists later found that they also turned fat into muscle in livestock. Both drugs are controversial. Dozens of nations, including China and the countries of the European Union, have banned their use because of concerns that residues in the meat could harm humans.

Zilmax, which Intervet calls “a beef-improvement technology,” is the more potent of the two. It appears to make cattle gain more pounds than Optaflexx. It also does more damage to the meat.

To launch Zilmax into the marketplace, Intervet hired a Midwestern public-relations firm called Osborn & Barr. The firm specializes in selling products to farmers. Its motto: “We create belief.”

So it wasn’t surprising that the firm and its client chose a professor like Ty Lawrence to help promote the new drug. Lawrence is someone ranchers would want to believe. He was raised on a cattle ranch on the plains of the Texas Panhandle. With his boyish face and plainspoken drawl, he doesn’t appear to be a slick salesman. An Osborn & Barr news release promoting Zilmax in July 2007 included a pitch from Lawrence. Zilmax “returns value to both the cattle feeder and the beef processor,” the release quoted him as saying. “I know of no other product that can make that claim.”

The release didn’t mention that grants from Intervet were fast becoming a significant source of support for Lawrence’s lab, at West Texas A&M.

But he touted that support in an announcement he sent out in 2009 to promote the lab. His work for Intervet and other companies was “a major source of revenue” for the university’s meat-science program, he wrote. He specifically pointed to the money he had received for research on Zilmax and another Intervet product, though he did not cite a dollar figure.

Lawrence has also repeatedly appeared with Intervet salesmen at events where they told ranchers and journalists of the drug’s benefits. In August 2009, he traveled to Alberta, Canada, to speak at the Lethbridge Lodge Hotel. He and an Intervet employee unveiled two products to the Canadian ranchers: Zilmax and a growth-promoting hormone called Revalor-XS. According to a local newspaper, The Prairie Post, Lawrence told the crowd that the two drugs were major entries in the beef-boosting field.

Intervet’s intensive push to sell the drug soon caused two prominent leaders in the beef industry to wage a countercampaign. One of the most outspoken critics is John Stika, president of Certified Angus Beef, a group that allows producers to use its brand name on meat in the supermarket if it meets certain standards. In March 2008, Stika wrote a column in Beef magazine, saying he was alarmed by the effects the new drug had on meat. He said the industry had become “too open to options that could simply make beef taste like the breading you put on it.”

“We can’t afford to give people another reason not to buy beef,” he warned.

Lawrence quickly defended Zilmax. In a response published in the magazine, he claimed that the beef industry had gained $100 in profit from each animal fed the drug. “Don’t be fooled by the smoke and mirrors,” Lawrence wrote. “Investigate new technologies. Set aside your emotions; do the math and determine on your own whether growth technologies work in your operation.”

In the kind of disclosure not usually included in Lawrence’s published research, the response noted that he had ties to Intervet. But even that acknowledgment read like a sales pitch, describing him as part of a team that had studied how to “maximize the value of Zilmax throughout the beef chain.”

Responding via e-mail to questions from The Chronicle, Lawrence says he has a consulting arrangement with Intervet that pays him “no set amount” each year. He says the company has also paid him fees for lecturing and had reimbursed his travel expenses, but he declines to say how much he has received or whether he was paid to write the response in Beef magazine.

Lawrence says he doesn’t view his speeches or articles as work done to promote Zilmax. “I do not tell beef producers to use or not use Zilmax. I report the data.” He adds that it isn’t necessary for him to tell ranchers that some packing plants won’t accept cattle fed Zilmax, because that wasn’t part of “our data collection.”

West Texas A&M officials decline to say how much Lawrence had received in research grants from Intervet, arguing that the information is proprietary to the pharmaceutical firm. And executives at Merck, which acquired Intervet in 2009, decline to reveal how much the company has paid Lawrence and other animal scientists in consulting and speaking fees. By contrast, in response to Congressional pressure, the company recently began disclosing payments it makes to medical academics and physicians who have similarly helped sell its human medicine products.

In response to a list of questions from The Chronicle, the company sent a one-paragraph reply that says it has financed a variety of “scientific education initiatives” aimed at “helping animal health and livestock professionals achieve improved standards of overall animal care.” It delivers “balanced scientific information to these audiences,” the statement says. For those events, the company says, it selects speakers, “many of whom are considered scientific leaders in their particular field, who have knowledge and expertise in the subject matter.”

Indeed, Lawrence is not the only professor who has added academic luster to corporate-sponsored research, taking grants or other money from Intervet and then helping promote Zilmax. Bradley J. Johnson, a professor of meat science and muscle biology at Texas Tech University, has been a paid consultant to Intervet on the subject of “growth-enhancement technologies” since 2004, according to his curriculum vitae. He has made several presentations about Zilmax at events held by Intervet, including one in July 2009 titled “Understanding the Zilmax Advantage.”

Both Lawrence and Johnson have written scientific articles about Zilmax with company employees. One of those, by Johnson, published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2010, was a review of previously published research on the drug—much of it financed by Intervet. The team concluded that, even though Zilmax made beef less tender, it had “minimal effects on consumer acceptance” of the meat. Zilmax, they wrote, “can be an important management tool in the U.S. beef industry.” There was no disclosure that Johnson was a consultant to Intervet.

In an e-mail, Johnson says he stands behind those conclusions. He says the drug has “a well-established advantage” in producing more meat when fed to cattle in their last 20 days.

Editors at the Journal of Animal Science do not require authors to publicly disclose their ties to companies, even when an article discusses the product of a company from which they have received fees. The journal is the main scientific publication of the American Society of Animal Science, which has received financial support from Intervet and other pharmaceutical companies. The lack of a disclosure policy stands in contrast to policies at many other scientific publications. For example, The New England Journal of Medicine requires authors to detail their ties to companies in a lengthy statement, which is available on the journal’s Web site. The medical journal also won’t allow scientists to write review articles like the one Johnson wrote with the Intervet scientist if they have “significant financial associations” with a company selling a product under review.

Meghan Wulster-Radcliffe, the animal-science society’s chief executive, says Johnson’s corporate connections were revealed internally when the article was peer-reviewed. If the reviewers had found the article to be biased, she says, it would have been rejected.

In response to questions about the lack of disclosure in the articles about Zilmax, she says, the journal’s editors have decided to change its policy and will begin requiring authors to publicly reveal their industry ties. “We have no problem adding a public declaration,” she says.

As for Johnson, he says he doesn’t recommend any specific pharmaceutical product, because he has done research on “every approved growth-promoting agent used in beef-cattle production.” In fact, he became a consultant to Elanco, manufacturer of Optaflexx, in June 2010. In his public presentations for Intervet, he says, he focuses on explaining the science of how the drug increases muscle growth.

His compensation from Intervet, he says, averaged less than $7,500 a year from 2005 through 2011. “This modest income has no impact on my overall lifestyle, and I am not dependent on any consulting income to sustain my lifestyle,” he says. “In addition, due to the nature of my endowed-chair position, I am not dependent on research grants from these companies, either.”

Even as Johnson works for Intervet and other makers of growth-promoting drugs, the federal government has paid him to look at the potential harm they may have on the public and the environment. In 2009, he and five other scientists at Texas Tech received $600,000 from the Department of Agriculture to look at whether the dust blowing off feedlots, which has been found to be laced with traces of the anabolic steroids given to cattle, posed a risk to people living nearby. That research is still under way.

He says his involvement with the drug companies cannot influence the project’s conclusions, because other team members have collected samples, run tests, and compiled the numbers. Instead, his job is primarily to be the liaison among the pharmaceutical companies, the feedlot owners, and the rest of the team.

Still, Johnson says, he disclosed his ties to the hormone manufacturers in the application for the grant. That was confirmed by Jennifer Martin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Martin says the department “views most working relationships” between industry and academics “as a strength.” She says the panel of scientists from outside the government that reviewed and approved the grant found no problems with Johnson’s industrial work. When asked for a list of the panel’s members, she declined, pointing to agency policy designed “to protect the privacy of the review members.”

Some ranchers have grown skeptical of the advice they hear from professors and the extension services at land-grant universities. These ranchers point out that the pharmaceuticals the professors recommend are expensive. (Intervet was charging $8,300 for a 10-kilogram bag of Zilmax in January.) While products that make the cattle grow bigger increase the price that ranchers can get for their herds, the ranchers fear that the added expense of the drugs, as well as the cost of the extra feed that bigger cattle require, will leave them with no additional profit, or even with a loss.

Before he retired, Chip Hines raised about 150 cows a year on a ranch on the eastern plains of Colorado. He now gives speeches to ranchers on how it might not be in their best interest to follow the latest advice from academics. “Apparently no scientist had ever sat in a sale barn and witnessed price per pound going down as calves got bigger!” he wrote on his Web site.

Hines says in an interview that he remembers reading an article in a farming magazine in which John Lawrence, an Iowa State professor, claimed that using a pharmaceutical to control parasites on cattle would put $200 per head in the rancher’s pocket. Hines says he got angry when he searched the Web and quickly found the professor making the same claim in a corporate news release promoting a drug called Ivomec. It urged ranchers to take the “Ivomec Challenge.”

“Producers need to look at these technologies as an investment rather than an expense,” Lawrence stated in the release.

Lawrence, a professor of economics who has served as associate dean of Iowa State’s agriculture school, did not respond to repeated messages. John McCarroll, Iowa State’s executive director of university relations, says in a written statement that the professor’s calculation of the value of parasite control was done as “a private consulting arrangement between Dr. Lawrence and a marketing agency representing a coalition of pharmaceutical companies.”

In that work, Lawrence analyzed a variety of pharmaceutical products, McCarroll says, but did not mention any specific brand name or company in his final paper. “While the news release and other published news about the study have quoted Dr. Lawrence, at no time did he endorse or promote the use of a specific product.”

But Hines says it’s obvious to him that the professor was promoting Ivomec in the press release. Nor did Lawrence make it clear in his interviews with the magazine, Hines says, that he was working for the pharmaceutical companies. “This really bothers me,” Hines says. “It’s probably not illegal, but it’s unethical for sure.”

University administrators have increasingly pushed faculty to work with industry and develop products since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, in 1980. The law allows researchers receiving federal grants to patent and profit from their discoveries, creating the possibility of lucrative new revenue streams for the universities. At the same time, money from other sources has continued to dry up, making the universities more dependent on industry’s cash.

It was just about that time, in the early 1980s, that the amount of agricultural research financed by industry surpassed that paid for by the government. In most years since then, government financing has lagged behind that provided by companies. From 1979 to 2006, industry spending on agricultural research increased fourfold.

The law caused furious debates at many universities. Many professors said they worried that their academic freedom would be limited by the companies supporting their research. Some learned from experience that their trepidation was justified. Allen Williams, the former professor of animal science, says that in the late 1990s, a company stopped him from presenting his research on its pregnancy test for dairy cows. The company had given him a grant to test the product and was trying to win government approval to sell it, but Williams’s study suggested that the test didn’t work. He says he was preparing to present the results at a conference when his department head told him to pull the abstract. He had argued that he should be able to present his findings because he worked at a public university financed by taxpayers. His argument went nowhere.

“They killed the publications,” Williams says. “Because the company is supplying the research dollars, they own the research and dictate whether it can get published or not.”

He declines to say at which university the incident had occurred. He received tenure at Mississippi State and Louisiana Tech but left academe to become a consultant to the beef industry and raise his own cattle.

“As a professor, you are forced to do the research you can get the dollars for,” he says. “It’s not the research you’d like to do or see the need for.”

Because of the confidentiality agreements that companies require scientists to sign before they undertake corporate-sponsored studies, it is difficult for the public to learn about unfavorable research that has been quashed. Universities have fought back, if lamely: For example, at Purdue University, the master research agreement includes a clause stating that the university must be allowed to publish the results from a corporate-financed study. But the agreement also gives the company 30 days to review the scientists’ intended publication and allows executives to remove anything they deem to be confidential corporate information. If scientists disclose that information, they can be sued.

Academics not comfortable with such restrictions may lose more than lucrative consulting fees when they remain independent. The university system is set up to reward those professors who work most closely with industry. As they write scientific articles with industry scientists, their list of publications grows. Most universities also reward faculty members for winning research grants. And some universities, including West Texas A&M, even give points to professors who work as industry consultants. “The System encourages external faculty consulting as an effective mechanism for professional development and for establishing good relationships with industry,” explains the university’s faculty handbook.

Administrators of West Texas A&M think highly of Ty Lawrence. He was the highest-paid associate professor there last year. He made $101,000—well above the $60,000 median salary for an associate professor. James Hallmark, the provost, explains that Lawrence was in one of the higher-paid disciplines. He says the professor had also received high marks for teaching, for his work in serving on academic committees and advising students, and for his publication record—which includes at least a dozen articles written with Intervet employees.

Both West Texas A&M and Texas Tech require professors to get approval before signing consulting agreements. But neither has a limit on how much professors can receive from industry, and the public has no access to that information.

At Texas Tech, if professors receive more than $10,000 from a company, it is considered a significant financial interest. They must then disclose the details of their industry activities to administrators, but the information is kept secret. Even a written request made under the state’s open-records law won’t allow the public to learn how much those professors have been paid, because the state attorney general has ruled that the information is private. University officials decide whether a financial deal is a conflict of interest that could hurt a professor’s objectivity. If so, they can propose a plan for how the conflict can be “managed.”

That is unlike the situation at a growing number of medical schools, where administrators have recently strengthened rules governing their faculty’s work with pharmaceutical companies. For example, Stanford Medical School discloses in a public database the corporate relationship of any professor who receives $5,000 or more annually from a company. The medical school also requires faculty to disclose those relationships in publications and public discussions. Pharmaceutical sales representatives can’t attend the school’s educational events, and no sales literature can be handed out.

Those policies were put in place in 2006, as public outrage grew over the large sums that pharmaceutical companies paid to some physicians and medical academics. Congress began to hold hearings on the subject, and in March 2010 it passed the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which will soon require those payments to be detailed in a public database. The law contains no requirement that companies report what they pay to animal scientists, veterinarians, and other academics working with them to sell animal drugs.

There is no good reason for those payments to be exempt, says Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, who has spent years studying conflicts of interest in academic research. “The veterinary drugs not only affect animals,” Krimsky says. “They affect people. That’s why the European Union has banned certain animal drugs.”

Krimsky says the public should be concerned about the influence of drug companies inside schools of agriculture. The land-grant universities were created with a mission to help farmers, he says. “They were later convinced that helping drug companies help farmers was also part of their mission.”

Texas Tech recently formed a committee to discuss how its ethics rules should be strengthened, says Alice Young, an associate vice president for research at the university. She says she has also begun talking to some faculty members about disclosing their work for industry in publications and presentations.

Today, in some agricultural schools, it can be hard to see the line dividing academe’s ivory towers from corporate offices. For example, on its Web site, Texas Tech thanks 13 companies, including Intervet, Pfizer, and Elanco, for supporting its Burnett Center for beef research. (A university official says Intervet and two other companies recently stopped providing that support.)

Pharmaceutical companies also provide money for scholarships and programs. In August, Intervet gave eight students of veterinary medicine $1,500 each and an all-expense-paid trip to Albuquerque to attend a bovine-medicine conference. The company also gives graduate students grants to support their thesis work. One student, who wrote her thesis on Zilmax, thanked Intervet in her acknowledgments for financing her project and an Intervet scientist for aiding her work. Her conclusion: Feeding Zilmax to cattle for 20 days made steaks tougher, but the meat was “still acceptable.”

As Zilmax and other drugs have generated rib-eyes that hang over the plate and made beef tougher and less tasty, a whole new area of research has opened for university meat scientists, including Brad Johnson and Ty Lawrence.

At Texas Tech, Johnson has been looking at this question: When a drug like Zilmax takes flavorful bits of fat out of the meat, might another pharmaceutical put that marbling back in? He received a $33,000 grant from Intervet to study how marbling in meat can be enhanced with chemicals. Papers by Lawrence, of West Texas A&M, have described how meat from Zilmax cattle can be tenderized by jamming carcasses with needles or jolting them with high-voltage electricity.

In a 2004 paper, Lawrence looked at whether strip loins could be enhanced by pumping them with a solution of calcium lactate and rosemary extract. He has supervised a student who is studying how “lipid-injection technology” might improve the palatability of low-quality meat.

Lawrence summed up his work in his appearance for Intervet at the Lethbridge Lodge Hotel. “We want to make better beef,” he told the crowd, “make more of it, and make it more efficiently.”

Just as With medicines for human health, drugs for cattle come with both benefits and risks. Yet in the academic publications about Zilmax, there has been little discussion of its potential hazards, including how it can harm cattle and, perhaps, even the humans eating the meat.

One problem, says Allen Williams, is that the studies the companies pay universities to perform are short-term trials needed to get products approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But to determine whether it is safe to eat pharmaceutically treated beef over a human lifetime, he explains, studies would have to last for years.

“Nobody is doing those studies,” he says. “We don’t know the long-term side effects of these drugs, and I don’t want my grandchildren to find them out.”

Outside the United States, there is no scientific consensus on whether the two beta-adrenergic agonists now being fed to American herds are safe when humans eat this beef for years. A similar but more powerful growth-promoting drug, called clenbuterol, has been linked to outbreaks of food poisoning. In Ireland, two farmers died after mixing the drug into feed. Its use in livestock is banned in the United States.

To gain government approval for Zilmax, Intervet provided data from studies testing the drug in rats, monkeys, mice, small pigs known as Yucatan microswine, and a few dozen humans. In the human volunteers, the drug increased heart rate and caused tremors. The FDA requires ranchers to stop feeding Zilmax to cattle at least three days before they are slaughtered, to ensure that any remaining traces of the drug are at a level safe for humans.

Federal inspectors sample carcasses to look for illegal use of pharmaceuticals. Of the more than 30 million cattle slaughtered in 2009, inspectors tested the carcasses of just 170 steers for residues of Zilmax. They found no traces of the drug.

It doesn’t take years for animals to feel the effects of Zilmax. The FDA has received at least six reports where one or more cattle died after eating feed mixed with the drug.

Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and an expert on animal behavior, has reported how Zilmax and Optaflexx appear to cause cattle to become heat stressed and go lame, especially on hot days. In the summer of 2006, Grandin visited three slaughterhouses when temperatures rose above 90 degrees, an experience she documented on her Web site. At each plant she found lame cattle—as many as a third of the cattle at one slaughterhouse.

In 30 years of working with cattle, she says, it was the first time she had observed heat stress in cattle that were part Brahman, a breed from India that is known for withstanding extreme temperatures. She believes that the problems had to be caused by Optaflexx, which had recently been approved. At that time, Zilmax had yet to be sold. She saw similar problems last summer as steers arrived at a packing plant in heat over 100 degrees. In one truckload, she says, half of the cattle were lame. In an interview, Grandin says it was “highly likely” that the cattle were suffering the effects of Zilmax or Optaflexx. Cattle suffer these problems, she says, “when you push the biology.”

Grandin says she knows when cattle have been fed Zilmax, the stronger of the two drugs. Their necks will be unusually big and muscular. “Zilpaterol,” she says, “will make them look like a bull.”

As young 4-H members were getting their cattle ready for the Gibson County Fair in Indiana last year, Purdue University’s extension service sent them a newsletter with an article describing how Zilmax “helps increase muscle mass.” Such words are just what some 4-H members, hoping their steer becomes the next champion, want to hear.

The article was written by an Intervet employee and three Purdue professors. It explained that the children should mix two scoops of Showmaxx—the brand name used to promote the drug for use in show cattle—with 20 pounds of feed. It said feeding the drug to cattle for 20 days “provides the optimal feeding response.” It cautioned the children not to feed the drug to pigs, lambs, or goats, and to read the instructions on the package label. But there was no mention of the warning on that label that humans mixing it into feed must take care not to inhale it or get it in their eyes.

At the time the newsletter was sent, Intervet and a partner were aggressively promoting the drug to children raising show cattle. One of the sales brochures displayed the photo of a smiling blond girl in a pink-checkered shirt and blue jeans. Standing in the sawdust of the ring, the girl was no taller than the muscled Black Angus beast she grasped by a halter. In the other hand, she holds high her purple championship ribbon.

Chuck Hibberd, director of Purdue’s extension service, says the article was meant not to promote the drug, but to ensure that 4-H members knew how to use it correctly and legally. He says there are no rules against pharmaceutical companies’ working with its professors to tell ranchers and their children about new products, although that does not happen routinely. Purdue has rules for working with industry, he says, designed to keep its science and publications free of bias.

“This idea that drug companies can strong-arm faculty is wrong,” he says. “Our job is to share research with the public. It’s their choice whether to use a product or not.”

We welcome your thoughts and questions about this article. Please email the editors or submit a letter for publication.

Full article: